Noeline Kavanagh; looking to ‘entice, excite and ignite’ with the Macnas parade

Noeline Kavanagh

Noeline Kavanagh

AS THE Galway Arts Festival fast approaches, it is all systems go at Macnas as the company gears up for this year’s parade, entitled This Thunderous Heart, which will take to the city streets on Sunday July 22.

Keeping things fresh

It is the fourth parade to be directed by Noeline Kavanagh and, over an afternoon chat in her office, she discussed her vision for the company and what we can expect from the upcoming parade.

“Macnas is 26-years-old now and the work has gone through different focuses over time,” she begins. “The founders set in train a practice that allowed for great diversity in the styles that the company would explore. So we’ve seen Macnas go from GAA pitches on to the street, on to a rock arena, down a sidestreet in Mallow, up to the Olympia Theatre and so on. And it also went into different communities and locations with a socio-political agenda.

“When I arrived, the company had, in ways, exhausted a lot of those avenues and there hadn’t been an artistic director of any longevity who could provide an over-arching view of where it might go. So when I came back as artistic director I was asking ‘What can I bring to Macnas now?’, ‘How can Macnas re-emerge and put itself out there in a different context?’

“One of the things I am passionate about is the visual telling of a story in a way that connects with the audience. In the parade that’s always really challenging because the narrative is fleeting and the performers don’t stand in one place, it’s a big moving feast.

“Macnas were innovators in street arts and I wanted to explore that a bit more and see how could we infuse it with a different kind of style. I wanted to go back to look at that performance energy again and the musical energy, and to conjure up new, imaginative ways of creating work on the street.”

Macnas was the first Irish company to incorporate the spectacular and exhilarating brand of street theatre typified by companies such as Els Comediants. Over the years, Macnas has inspired many other Irish companies so that, today, it seems that as if every county has its own ‘Macnassy’ ensemble. Does that make it hard for Macnas itself to retain a distinctive identity?

“It does, but it also keeps us on the edge, you can’t just sit back and think you can put work out like it was on a conveyor belt,” Kavanagh replies. “With Macnas, and the number of artists who have pioneered work with the company down the years, you feel there is a responsibility to maintain that sense of energy and integrity, to be constantly looking at rejuvenating, re-imagining and presenting work that will entice, excite and ignite and will also have a particular signature on it so that people will say ‘that’s definitely Macnas’.

“What I’ve discovered is that in introducing a particular aesthetic into the company it’s had an influence in terms of how the street arts have responded to that in other parts of the country and that’s been great. I’d like to think we are still inventing and engaging and imagineering in a way that has become a signature element of the company’s practice. Like any company, Macnas has its peaks and troughs and plateaus but I’d hope that in the last couple of years people have seen a different energy emerging.”

This Thunderous Heart

And so to This Thunderous Heart; Kavanagh outlines the main ideas and features of the parade; “It’s about discovery, hurt, transformation, and the ability to change, and it’s about the bravery and risk involved in transformation,” she states. “I like to tell the story of each parade through the eyes of a central character so we’ve had the Boy Explorer, and last year’s Girl Inventor.

“This year we have a Journeyman who has travelled from the desert through forest, through bog, through the sea and has arrived in Galway. He has a thunderous heart and an energy and eclecticism that will hopefully really connect with the audience. Around him there is a group of unlikely heroes, starting with a troupe of alchemists who are inspired by insects.

“Our Journeyman, who has experienced a lot and has a couple of wounds is looking to the alchemists to see if they can conjure up some remedies for him. We also have an animal in the act of transformation which brings wildness and hybridity and unpredictability and I think that will create a lot of fun for the audience to be around.

“The Journeyman will also encounter Memory and the possibility of other paths he could have taken so we have a carnival troupe who have a kind of charlatan energy where the arts of illusion and disillusionment become blurred. So we’re creating this world that the Journeyman inhabits within which there are things to please, to endear, to frighten and to overcome.”

In the Galway Arts Festival brochure, the page on Macnas features text which says: “With a thousand horsepower in my heart/through breath and steel and brave-willed tears/I am ferociously inclined to love you’.

Noeline explains why she used them; “The quote was inspired by some lines from Québécois poet Gaston Miron, I took his essential idea and changed the references to make it about a man’s constancy in relation to a belief in something. I found the notion of ‘a thunderous heart’ interesting because it’s a heart that has a history to it and it has a determination to want to pulsate and push through.”

While the parade remains Macnas’s most visible presence for Galway audiences, the company has been hugely busy with other projects also. Already it has been to Russia, brought two shows to Dublin, and is currently touring two street shows around the country.

Macnas also has two site-specific shows in Britain this summer as part of the Olympiad and will be returning to Dublin in September for the Fringe Festival.

“We’re not doing two bad for a staff of two,” Kavanagh quips. “We’re also looking to get our Boy Explorer out on the road again so if there are any philanthropists or investors out there who’d like to get involved that would be brilliant!”

In the meantime, there’s This Thunderous Heart to look forward to. It begins at the Spanish Arch, on Sunday July 22 at 8.45pm and continues along Quay Street, High Street, Shop Street, William Street, Eglinton Street, Francis Street, Salmon Weir Bridge, and concludes at the Fisheries Field. And as Noeline Kavanagh declares at the end of our interview; “Everyone should come along, it’s free and it’s fabulous!”

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